Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

A fantastic book by one of my favourite writers, from Death Ray #19. Read my interview with Le Guin here.

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Author: Ursula Le Guin

Publisher: Gollancz


One of the best writers of the age gives us, perhaps, her best book.

It’s not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It’s not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe. (more…)

The best of the supernatural comedy shows popular a few years ago, in my opinion. I really enjoyed Reaper. A review of season 2, from Death Ray #19.

Directors: Stephen Cragg, Ron Underwood, Tom Cherones, Kevin Dowling

Writers: Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, Craig DiGregorio, Kevin Etten, Chris Dingess

Starring: Bret Harrison, Tyler Labine, Rick Gonzalez, Ray Wise, Missy Peregrym


Being a young man with a crummy job is not much fun, and it’s not made any better by being the son of Satan.

If there ever was a series designed to bait American fundamentalist Christians, it is Reaper, where hero Sam enters a second year of service to the devil, his friend Ben embarks on a romantic affair with a demon, and his other pal Sock continues his quest to live up to every one of the the Seven Deadly Sins.

On the other hand, it could well be employed in some religious school somewhere as a teaching aid. The show’s heavy on the redemption, features a Satan who acknowledges God loves everyone and will ultimately triumph, and its storylines frequently frown at the pleasures of the flesh. Sam is almost saintly. Despite discovering that he is actually the son of Old Nick himself, he seems immune to temptation, and strives to do the right thing while performing his role as bounty hunter for Hell, hunting down the escapee damned. This is almost an advert for American non-conformist church fun.

Reaper is a series about friends and family, it’s kind of cuddly and wholesome underneath the horns and Kevin Smith style slacker attitude. And it’s funny, though of course the Devil gets all the best lines “Satan is attracted to radishes?” he incredulously states at one point, leafing through Sam’s book on demonology, “do they mean sexually? That’s disgusting! Where do they get this stuff?” And Satan also has the best actor, the amazingly smooth Ray Wise. He’s got the devil’s own role, and seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

If anything funnier and slicker than its initial run, Reaper is damnably good telly.

This is a piece on Richard Adam’s Watership Down, first published in Death Ray #19 in 2009.

This tale of fluffy bunnies owes far more to Virgil’s Aeneid than to Beatrix Potter, and is a cornerstone of animal fantasy, argues Guy Haley.

Animal fantasy is a tricky beast. The anthropomorphised animal inhabits a funny little world at the end of the genre branchline, its stations lie on a different route entirely to SF, and at least three stops past fantasy. From a certain point of view, a speaking rat might appear to be firmly in Death Ray‘s stadium of odd little dreams, from the other, maybe not. It’s not the medium in this case, but the message – the stories told by the chatty animals are often a slight things, moralising in the ‘be good to your chums’ mode, aimed at children.

Perhaps that it’s to cover in depth every talking animal, we would fill up the magazine with Mr Toads. It seems safer to exclude them all. So, nearly all of it is fits into our loose genre definition, but we don’t cover it because it is too numerous and ephemeral to said genre. Sounds about right.

But that would be very foolish, and tantamount to the anti-SF snobbery you still see occasionally from mainstream critics. One must never let expediency get in the way of art, let alone preconceptions.

Because a lot of ‘animal fantasy’ is obviously of significant artistic importance. The political allegory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example; we’d be stupid to ignore that. Or for different reasons, the heavily SF tinged Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.

Perhaps the greatest animal fantasy is Watership Down, published in 1972 by the author Richard Adams. It’s a story of rabbits, but a far cry from the world of Beatrix Potter; an epic quest where a bunch of rabbits flee their warren after the dire visions of a sickly runt named Fiver predict that their home is doomed to be destroyed. After a terrible journey, the rabbits discover a new place for themselves, only to realise they have no females. A request for does from the nearby warren of Efrafa then leads to a bitter war for survival. (more…)

This series, Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire was a game attempt to make a comedy fantasy show. We reviewed the series over two issues of Death Ray, and both reviews are included below I was inclined to be generous to it, but in the end it didn’t quite work.



Directors: Various

Writers: Peter Knight, Brad Johnson

Starring: Sean McGuire, India De Beaufort, Matt Lucas, Alex MacQueen

Comedy fantasy that just about succeeds on both scores.

Comic fantasy is a difficult to pull off . Few beyond Terry Pratchett manage to raise genuine laughs in print, and even his stuff doesn’t work well as TV comedy.

Being created specifically for telly, Kröd Mändoon is friendlier to the format. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Roman comedy Chelmsford 123 (one of Kröd production company Hat Trick’s very first efforts). Perhaps we’re being generous here, but it just could be fantasy’s answer to Red Dwarf.

Why? Well, the first episode of Red Dwarf, like Kröd Mändoon‘s, was hardly hilarious, but as the characters and situation became established, it became so. There’s plenty in fantasy to tease, and Kröd attacks the cliches with gusto, Michael Gambon’s voice overs doing a great job of popping the genre’s vasty pomposity.

Matt Lucas and Alex MacQueen’s double act as evil Chancellor Dongalor and his put-upon number two Barnabus is easily the highlight of the series thus far. Despots always have the most fun, but Dongalor’s employment of teeth-grinding modern management techniques punctuated with murderous violence demonstrates comic fantasy’s greatest strength: as a satirical tool it works extremely well. If the later episodes make more of this it could well succeed. As it is, the second episode is better than the first. And though the rest of the characters are not as strong as Dongalor, McGuire’s insecure freedom fighter Kröd shows some promise.

However, Red Dwarf at its best managed to be good science fiction and good comedy. We’re not so convinced Kröd‘s fantasy is robust enough to be more than simply silly. Secondly, although the market for literary fantasy is larger than that of SF, the genre’s habits and foibles are not as familiar to the broader public. Still, it’s brave, and raises more than the average number of laughs. We’ll keep watching.

Part II

Broad fantasy comedy that raises more than a few laughs, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Last issue we left Kröd after two episodes, hoping the series would come good on the promise it showed. We can report that it did. Mostly. Kröd’s full outing was not exactly a laugh riot, but it managed to remain entertaining throughout.

We’ll reiterate our reservations from last time: do sufficient people know fantasy well enough to get Kröd? And can it be more than simply silly? The first remains an unknown, only audience figures will give us any indication, but the second we’ll have to say ‘no’ to. The series’ jokes are almost entirely predicated on three things. First: Chancellor Dongalor’s murderous governance and family affairs. Secondly: the incompetence of Kröd’s crew. Thirdly: sex. There’s so much smut in Kröd it should really be called Crude Mändoon and the Big Fat Cock Joke.

But hey, Death Ray likes a good cock joke as much as the next Englishman.

It’s the heroes constant bickering that works less well. To be sure, each member of Kröd’s plucky band has some kind of issue, and these play off well against each other, but it’s a forced kind of comedy. It doesn’t play off against the heroes’ quest they’re on either. Yeah, sure, the band of idiots who succeed in spite of themselves is old as time, but it doesn’t quite hold up here. Better would be to follow the model of Asterix the Gaul, whose adventures manage to be hilarious without the hero being a total chump.

Unlike Red Dwarf, or the more recent No Heroics, both of which used standalone ideas for each story, Kröd Mändoon depends on the ongoing story of the rebellion against Chancellor Dongalor, and his attempt to reactivate an ancient magical weapon. Most episodes have a standalone element to them, episode 4, for example, has the team attempting to rob a Cyclops of his magic gem. But, you guessed it, it’s all nookie jokes. There’s just not enough scope in individual episodes to build truly comic situations. The arc-plot is to blame. It’s too close to the thing it’s parodying. It’s too… BIG. Sitcoms depend on the situation as much as the comedy, and that situation has to be confining. Whether it’s Red Dwarf‘s spaceship, No Heroic‘s pub, any number of living rooms and flatshares or, more broadly, Royston Vasey, the relationship between Mark and Jez in Peepshow or Blackadder II‘s Elizabethan era, they all restrict. Kröd has no base, and his exploits are less funny because of it. It’s notable that the Dongalor/ Barnabus scenes remain the most successful. This is in part due to Matt Lucas’ performance, but also because it adheres more strictly to the formula of all truly great TV comedies – they barely leave the castle.

It is a warmhearted romp, and there are good jokes and good lines, but if it comes back for a second run, it will need to be tighter and just a bit more imaginative.

A DVD review from rom SFX #223. Putting this up here reminds me that Bob Hoskins died this year.

DVD Two and a half stars
Extras: Three and a half stars
2011 * 12 * 162 minutes
Director: Nick Willer
Cast: Charlie Rowe, Rhys Ifan, Anna Friel, Bob Hoskins, Charles Dance

Peter Pan prequel doesn’t fly

What is it with this constant need to reinvent popular icons? Have we become imaginatively bankrupt? And why do we need to put an inferior modern stamp on classics while doing so? Neverland is the latest in a growing run of such, ahem, entertainments.

A prequel/ reimagining (shudder) of Barrie’s beloved tale, Neverland has some merits. There’s an obvious amount of money been spent on great sets and costumes (although some of the CG is dreadful), Charlie Rowe is a very good Peter, and there’s a measure of directorial flair from Willer.

The same can’t be said of his script. Neverland is a fundamentally magical place; Willer’s reductionist attempt to explain how it works steals much of this magic away. Borrowing tedious tropes from fatbook fantasy and the shallower end of SF, the story makes Neverland into an alien planet, introduces wizards, and has Hook and Peter enjoy a confused Vader/Luke relationship. Locales like Neverland and Oz are marvellous because of their illogicality; as with a magician’s trick, you can’t get lift the curtain on their workings and expect them to hold up as well.

There are simpler flaws evident in the narrative. The story is saggy, and when not held in thrall to Willer’s sensawunda-murdering infodumps, repetitive. What should have been enthralling is often tedious.

An ill-advised attempt that entirely misses the point.

Extras: Two two-part documentaries, four interviews (Dance, Friel, and two with Willer). Not a bad amount, but they tend to celebratory puff rather than incisiveness. Guy Haley


Did you know?

Barrie’s Hook was a pirate and one-time associate of Blackbeard, Willer has him recast as a disgraced 19th century aristocrat muddled up in occult doings.

Review: Origin

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

Origin by J.T. Brannan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From SFX #229.

The Da Vinci Spaceship

The Bilderberg Group, Area 51, the Nazca Lines, Greys, world government, alternative archeology – name an element of alien-connected conspiracy silliness, and it’s in SF thriller Origin.

Evelyn Edwards is a scientist in Antarctica who discovers a human body frozen into 40,000 year-old ice. Not only should this corpse not be there, but he’s also possessed of advanced tech. After reporting the find, Evelyn’s team are wiped out by members of the US Army. She goes on the run, hooking up with her ex-husband – ace Native American tracker Matt – and discovers a conspiracy that threatens the human race.

Origin is the kind of book that spoon feeds its readers. Everything, from its characters’ motivations to geographical locations, is not so much artfully described as ladled into one’s mind. We suppose that’s fair enough; this is a simple thriller, not the ambiguous latest from Christopher Priest, but the common audience denominator being aimed at here is pretty darn low.

Matt’s Indian background and an okay-ish final twist aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend Origin. The main characters are uninspired ciphers designed to absorb exposition, and there are some jaw-dropping bits of narrative fudgery that derail what is otherwise a pleasantly brainless ride. If this were a film, it would be directed by Paul Anderson. No doubt it has the potential to sell very well, but there are a lot of better books around – even in the unambitious technothriller subgenre of which Origin is firmly a part.

Did you know?

J.T. Brannan trained as an army officer at Sandhurst before deciding to be a writer. This is his first book. He’s also a karate expert. Ulp.

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